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Articles, a type of determiner, are the words that are used before a noun to "determine" the precise meaning of the noun. Even though these are short, common words, they can cause some of the most difficult problems for ESL students. Determiners can be articles (a, an, the), demonstrative pronouns (this, that, these, those), possessive pronouns (my, your, his, hers, its, our, their) or quantifiers.

The articles a and the can prove especially difficult for students if their first language does not use comparable structures. Compare the meaning of these sentences:

  1. I am a teacher. (I am one teacher among many teachers).
    I am the teacher. (I am the specific teacher of this class/group).

  2. They enjoy listening to music. (A general statement of preference).
    They are listening to the music. (A specific reference to the fact that they can hear music now).

When trying decide if an article is needed or not, or which one is correct, use the following diagram as an aid until the decision making process becomes automatic. The diagram below, and the chart of article usage, gives an overview only; use them in conjunction with a textbook and with a dictionary.

Use the diagram below to help determine whether or not a or the is needed in a specific construction. Remember that if a is required and the following noun begins with a vowel, use an. The table also helps to indicate which personal nouns and quantifiers can be used in the various situations. For more information on article and quantifier usage, please refer to a reference or textbook.

Noun determiner diagram

Article Usage

Proper Nouns Common Nouns
Count Nouns Non-Count Nouns
the Ø singular generic plural Ø , some, much, a lot of, little, a little, my, your, his, her, this, that
The + Netherlands/ Sudan/ United Arab Emirates/ United Kingdom/ United States
All other countries
e.g. France/ Japan/ Argentina
a/an, one e.g. a cup, an orange
the, my, your, his, her, our, their, this, that
e.g. the cup, the orange
e.g. cups, oranges
the, two etc., some, several, many, a lot of, few, a few, my, your, his, her, these, those
e.g. two cups, some oranges
Abstract nouns:
fate, peace
Geographic locations:
The + Amazon River/ Great Barrier Reef/ Gobi Desert/ Pacific Ocean
  1st mention
I read a good novel
2nd mention
the novel was about ...
  Consisting of small pieces:
sand, sugar, rice
the minister of our church
Existing as a solid, liquid or gas:
silver, water, oxygen
Plural islands, lakes, mountains:
The + Swiss Alps/ Thousand Islands/ Great Lakes
Singular islands, lakes, mountains:
Mount Fujiyama/ Sicily/ Lake Geneva
the clock on the wall
Academic subjects:
English, Biology, Mathematics
the best book
soccer, tennis, swimming
Educational institutions:
The University/ College/ School of ...
Educational institutions:
... University/ College/ School
Definite noun phrase or clause
the book on Canada
Natural phenomena:
sunshine, hail, fog
measles, AIDS, cancer**
The + Koreans/ British/ Germans/ Americans
Korean/ English/ German*
Measurement of Non-count Nouns

** but, the flu, a cold

a bottle of water

the bottle of water

bottles of water

the bottles of water

*If part of a noun phrase then use "the German language", etc.

Updated September 10 2014 by Student & Academic Services

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